Thursday, December 24, 2009

Boston Scientific (Again) Settles - This Time, Charges of Kickbacks Disguised as Clinical Studies

One would think that the stories about bad behavior by health care organizations would quiet down just before Christmas, but no...

As reported by the AP:
U.S. attorneys in Boston said Wednesday heart device maker Boston Scientific will pay $22 million to resolve allegations its Guidant division paid kickbacks to doctors to get them to use its heart devices.

The U.S. Department of Justice said Guidant paid physicians $1,000 to $1,500 each in 2003 and 2004 to participate in four studies, called RaCE, RaCE II, RaCE III, and MERITS. It said the studies were designed to increase sales of pacemakers and defibrillators.

Federal officials said the company targeted doctors who favored products made by other companies, hoping the payments would induce them to use Guidant devices more often. They said Guidant submitted claims for payment on the devices to Medicare.

Boston Scientific did not admit wrongdoing as part of the civil settlement. Under the agreement, its cardiac rhythm management division will have to publicly disclose payments to physicians on a Web site. Boston Scientific also entered into a corporate integrity agreement.

So here we have an example of a "seeding study," that is, a marketing effort to persuade physicians to prescribe a product disguised as a clinical research study, but for medical devices, not drugs.  Seeding studies seem to combine multiple kinds of unethical behavior, deceptive marketing and manipulated research.  There had been some question in the past whether seeding studies exist, but this is the second recent example to come to light, suggesting that not only do they exist, but that they are used by device as well as pharmaceutical companies.

Note that, as Bloomberg reports, this is the third major settlement of allegations of bad behavior made by Boston Scientific,
The company agreed last month to pay $296 million to settle a Justice Department probe into Guidant’s handling of heart devices and restated third-quarter results. [See post here.] In 2007, Boston Scientific agreed to pay $240 million to settle more than 8,000 lawsuits claiming Guidant hid defects in defibrillators, which are devices that shock the heart back into regular rhythm.
Cataloging legal settlements seems to be a useful way to assess the sorts of bad behavior manifested by large health care organizations (see some posts here). However, as we have said frequently, such settlements, including the "corporate integrity agreements" now frequently attached to them, seem to have done little to deter bad behavior.  Usually, the companies involved only need to pay fines, and no individual who performed, directed or approved unethical or illegal acts will suffer any negative consequences. I submit once again that such fines are viewed merely as costs of doing business by the affected companies, and do not deter future bad behavior.

I submit that would-be health care reformers who want to improve care, reduce costs and improve access should advocate for real negative consequences for people who implement, direct or approve the various versions of fraud, kickbacks, and miscellaneous corruption and malfeasance we have discussed on Health Care Renewal.

By the way, the board of directors of Boston Scientific includes two noted academics with leadership roles in academic health care.  Marye Anne Fox is the Chancellor of the University of California - San Diego, and hence the leader of a major medical school and academic medical center.  The university's mission statement, alongside which sits her picture, proclaims it "strives to maintain a climate of fairness, cooperation, and professionalism." Uwe Reinhardt, Professor at Princeton, is a noted health care economist, and blogger on the Economix blog for the New York Times.  Perhaps such august academic personages could tell  us how they are assuring that the company they are paid well to oversee upholds, rather than undermines professionalism and fairness.


InformaticsMD said...

Federal officials said the company targeted doctors who favored products made by other companies, hoping the payments would induce them to use Guidant devices more often. They said Guidant submitted claims for payment on the devices to Medicare.

The United States just filed an Amicus brief supporting truth teller (aka 'whistleblower') Peter Rost v. Pfizer, specifically delineating how payments/bribes that taint physician judgment and cause Medicare funds to be, in effect, fraudulently tapped (even if the decision is clinically sound) is a criminal act. No if, ands, buts, or spin is acceptable.

The amicus brief is very, very clear that medical decisions involving federal funds need to be clear of taint.

See "Department of Justice files amicus brief supporting Rost in United States ex. rel. Peter Rost v. Pfizer et al. 03-CV-11084" at this link, and the brief itself at

-- SS

Anonymous said...

Taint and painted facades illuminate the processes of the HIT boondoggle. The conduct of this industry and its trade associations merits a glance similar to that which looked at BSC.

And if you are unhappy with the care you receive when you are hospitalized in a highly wired environment, send a note to the FDA and your state's department of health, or call them, informing such authorities about your adverse events.